Warning Shot

How will the USADA Report and the Lance Armstrong story effect triathlon?

The other night I was chatting with San Francisco-based triathlon coach, Nate Helming, in the Presidio when he was coaching a group of athletes. It had rained in the morning but the weather had cleared, the Golden Gate Bridge looking freshly scrubbed in the crisp air.

We were talking about the tornado of information released with USADA’s investigation on Lance Armstrong and Tyler Hamilton’s account, co-authored by Daniel Coyle, of cycling’s doping culture in, “The Secret Race.”

One of the things that had caught Helming’s eye in “The Secret Race” was the description of how feverishly Hamilton drove himself to reach the numbers prescribed by Dr. Michele Ferrari, the coaching mastermind that has been clearly painted as one of cycling’s chief links to doping and in particular EPO. Apparently Ferrari boiled down the core of his coaching to a combination of key numbers: the power output of the athlete as measured in watts, the weight of the athlete and the hematocrit–a test that revealed the percentage of red cells making up the athlete’s blood.

Helming wondered if one of enhancements provided by doping was that it allowed Hamilton to pursue the numbers dictated by Ferrari: Train like your being chased by a SEAL Team 6 while simultaneously starving yourself down to skin, gristle and bone. To trick his stomach into thinking he was eating he would drink gallons of fizzy water to keep hunger at bay. As Helming pointed out, sustaining that kind of severe training requires the ordinary mortal to eat food and lots of it. Stuffing yourself with fizzy water would be a sure route for most of us to break down and get sick. I think of some of the great overtrainers in triathlon history, professionals who had time for naps and 10 hours or more of sleep per day: Canadian Peter Reid and German Thomas Hellriegel. Reid ended up battling with anemia. Hellriegel got wipe out by rickets one year. Yet Hamilton and the others on the Ferrari program would cook themselves down to prisoner-of-war body frames and then be ready to push beyond their limits on a daily basis for the weeks of the Tour de France. One of the many interesting episodes recounted by Hamilton and Coyle was how the US Postal Service team knew they were in for a particularly harsh day of suffering in training when they saw Lance give in to temptation and eat a piece of cake at dinner—Lance would make sure an extra 5000 calories were scorched away with training effort to pay for the lapse.

Helming hypothesized that the drug program may not only have allowed the athletes to serve up more training output on a daily basis, but also withstand the lack of appropriate nutrition that a non-doper would surely need to recover. It seemed reasonable. Naturally, the body tends to seek ways to shut down when too much is asked of it.

So that’s the kind of thing we were talking about. Furthering these discussions along has been two cases outside of cycling: runner Christian Hesch getting popped for EPO and then 58-year-old age-grouper Kevin Moats being busted for testosterone at the Hawaii Ironman.

Two things in regards to Hesch and Moats. The Hesch case showed getting EPO is about as difficult as it is to shop at an outlet mall. He went into Tijuana, bought his drugs, then with the goods in his jeans pockets walked back across the border. As far as Moats, it’s unfortunately a confirmation of ‘we had a feeling this was coming;’ That performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) are available to pros and amateurs alike. And that at least one amateur in triathlon has been using them.

Triathlon has been relatively lucking in escaping the scourge of PED busts that cycling and track and field, for example, have been dealing with. Relatively, that is. Here’s a few   names that have had run ins with positive drug tests: Marian Ohata, Jurgen Zack, Rebecca Keat, Spencer Smith and Nina Kraft. Luc Van Lierde always had a swell of PED rumors surrounding him. And as far as age-groupers, a prominent coach once told me he had a client ask him bluntly, “How do I go about getting EPO?”

I was covering the women’s race at the Hawaii Ironman in 2004 when, while standing at about the 100-mile mark of the bike leg, Kraft came steaming by with a 13-minute lead over her competitors, a group which included biking superpower Natascha Badmann. She saw me standing on the side of the road and asked, “Where are the other girls?” I said something like, “In another time zone.” Kraft went on to win that day. I interviewed her before the press conference and was struck by how stunned she looked. If I had just won the Hawaii Ironman I would be levitating off the ground. There was no joy for Kraft. She simply looked uncomfortable. When the first test came back with a positive she confessed rather than wait for the B-sample to be tested. The WTC served her a two-year ban and she went on to compete again in Ironman events, over the years collecting wins at Ironman Brazil, Florida and Louisville. Watching Kraft come in second place at Louisville in 2007 was instructive in that I doubt few in the crowd at the finish line had any idea who she was let alone the fact she had just been sprung from a PED ban.

The point is that triathlon has been relatively unscathed. And although the Kevin Moats story is unfortunate, disturbing and sad, this could have been the year triathlon got sucked right into the middle of one of the most widely-followed, damaging and controversial doping cases in history.

What a year for triathlon. As Sports Illustrated’s Austin Murphy wrote, it started when “Lance Armstrong defibrillated the triathlon universe” with his decision to enter the sport. Triathletes, the industry, the triathlon media, and the sport in general anticipated a catapult effect.   Unlike Armstrong’s appearances at the NYC Marathon, Armstrong meant to win the Kona crown. This was even reflected in the USADA investigation, where e-mail exchanges were obtained that depicted, as the report states it, “Armstrong’s professional relationship with Ferrari continued even into preparation for Armstrong’s new career in triathlon.”

With the global media spotlight following him, it was hard not to see what Armstrong’s brand of athletic talent, supercharged ambition and capacity to analyze, prepare and conquer would bring. Craig Alexander said the Lance factor had an effect on him signing up for another year of the supreme sacrifice the Ironman World Championship requires. “In some ways it’s why I decided to come back to Kona,” Alexander said in an interview in July. “It was a new challenge.”  Similar story with Chris McCormack. And with Armstrong’s podium showings at Ironman Panama 70.3 and Honu 70.3—the latter a race in which he both won and cracked the record–the possibility that the Operation Lance would make for a dramatic race in Kona, perhaps even winning, seemed plausible if not likely.

For a while Armstrong was like the long awaited appearance of a comet that was going to light up the sky like we’d never seen before. Instead it was a meteor that narrowly missed slamming into the the sport. What if Hamilton’s book and the USADA investigation and report all clamped down around Armstrong after a podium finish in Kona? How much damage would the sport of triathlon have suffered?

Maybe not that much. It’s all conjecture now. You’d like to figure that major race series like Ironman, the Challenge Family and Lifetime have taken note at how much a drug problem can cost a sport.

But the problem for the typical age-group triathlete who is in it for the lifestyle, the challenge of racing, the health and fitness and identity of being a triathlete, is more one of coming to grips with the thought that we have more than just draft cheats to worry about.

For most of us, triathlon is a sport that is more about an internal challenge than it is the leader board. The most real satisfaction to come from it is in training hard for something and then when race day comes, racing hard. A good race is one in which you push hard enough that a voice pipes up in your head attempting to seduce you into backing off. The voice reminds you that you’re not being paid to be there. That the discomfort and strain is a choice and that you have the option to peel off to the side of the road and wait for an air-conditioned white van to come pick you up and feed you glazed donuts and black coffee. The satisfaction comes in beating that voice and crossing the line thoroughly trashed, a great flood of intoxicating relief that it’s over and that you didn’t give into weakness. You come out of it a little bit stronger than when you went in. It’s in that moment that we know what triathlon is about.

I recall the look on Kraft’s face that day, just hours after winning the Hawaii Ironman. At some point in her career she had convinced herself that doping was OK. But her expression revealed only emptiness and confusion. Crime and Punishment-like guilt. She knew she had stolen property on her hands. If there was a saving grace to that day, it was clear that Kraft had a conscience.

While it would be foolish to assume that someone isn’t getting away with doping in triathlon, we like to think triathlon is mostly clean. As Hamilton’s book illustrated, the shadow games and drug use in the cycling world had become so ubiquitous that in order to even hang onto the peloton a talented and hard working cyclist had a stark choice: get on EPO or quit fooling yourself. Hamilton detailed the anxious and dark world of running PEDs across European borders in his car. And how ridiculous it was to see that one way used to beat a surprise drug test was simply to not answer the door when official came knocking. Just essentially hide in the basement and drink water until you’ve diluted your system enough to pass the test clean. Reading the book–which was co-authored by the accomplished journalist Coyle who insisted on a thorough fact-checking requirement before material made it into the pages–it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that 3-time TDF champion Greg Lemond has: that the international governing body of the sport should pay a price for their dismal record in controlling the sport.  Lemond’s new call for the UCI leadership to step down was made within an open letter to the UCI’s President Pat McQuaid and honorary president Hen Verbruggen. In part it said:

“You know damn well what has been going on in cycling, and if you want to deny it, then even more reasons why those who love cycling need to demand that you resign. … The problem for sport is not drugs but corruption. You are the epitome of the word corruption.”

We’re still trying to process everything that has come out in the last few months. I, for one, am tired of thinking about it.  The toxic rain from the USADA report is still falling to the ground. Perhaps the morality play that is in the fifth act that came so close to dragging triathlon onto center stage will give rise to the prospect that our sport will aim to do what some say can’t be done: Become the vanguard in sport’s battle against cheating with drugs.

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